Tough laws don’t mean a whole lot when there’s not the criminal justice system to back it up.
That’s one of the takeaways from a recently publicized 37-page ruling by Fairbanks Superior Court Judge Michael A. MacDonald that admonished the policy and budgetary decisions made by the Legislature and the governor’s administration for pushing the state’s legal system to the brink.
The order revolved around a Public Defender Agency attorney quitting due to mental exhaustion and withdrawing from the already-delayed murder trial of Alexie Walters. Walter’s accused of murdering his girlfriend in 2017 in Mountain Village in a case that’s already been delayed more than a dozen times.
MacDonald was also critical of the Public Defender Agency, saying it could manage the near-impossible situation handed to it by the Legislature and governor’s administration better. He said the major failing in the latest instance was failing to properly notify the state and the courts of the impending burnout.
The result of the latest development is yet another delay for the murder trial, a delay in the delivery of justice for the family of Gertrude Queenie and her community. MacDonald says the case, which also extends to evidence tampering and violence towards two Village Police Officers, is emblematic of the larger problems facing Alaska’s Criminal Justice System as it’s pushed to the brink with budget cuts and policy decisions that run counter to the system’s effective operation.
“The parties’ positions in this case establish that the State of Alaska’s criminal justice system is operating on the fringes, barely able to protect against the deprivation of fundamental rights, barely able to respond in a professional responsible manner to Alaska’s rising violent crime rates,” explains the order. “The record in this case should reflect that, as a result of the policy and budget choices made by the legislative and executive branches, the people of Alaska must tolerate years long delays in the prosecution of the type of crimes charged in this case—crimes against women, crimes fueled by substance abuse, crimes against law enforcement officers, crimes against rural Alaskans, crimes perpetuated by repeat offenders.”
The order lays out a deep look into the innerworkings of the Public Defender Agency, where recruitment and retention problems have punched holes into offices throughout the state while relief through budget increases has either been slow or been reversed entirely.
Dunleavy vetoed additional money the Legislature appropriated for the Public Defender Agency this year and also vetoed half of the agency’s travel budget, which was cited in the order as an issue for recruitment and retention. The agency will see an increase in funding thanks to the passage of legislation rolling back criminal justice reforms, but that’s tied directly to the anticipated increase in criminal cases and not the current caseloads facing public defenders.
Not a surprise and ignored warnings
The latest turn shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Last year, former Public Defender Quinlan Steiner warned legislators about nearly everything that came to fruition in this case. He told legislators that the Public Defender Agency was nearing its ethical limit on caseloads and needed more attorneys or else it would have to start declining cases.
The spike in cases came as funding was restored for Alaska’s prosecuting attorneys (who had declined to bring charges in thousands of minor cases due to cuts), an area where politicians have been far more eager to funnel money, while corresponding increases to the Public Defenders Agency and the Office of Public Advocacy have been slow or non-existent.
Steiner warned that the Public Defender Agency soon reach a place where it would have to delay cases or decline cases entirely. At the time, he was concerned about public defenders reaching a 160-case caseload that would require attorneys upwards of 94 hours a week of work to handle.
“Our projected caseloads are going to exceed the maximum ethical caseload,” said Quinlan Steiner, the head of the Public Defender Agency in an interview with The Midnight Sun in 2018. “In the event that actually happens, and we don’t’ have the resources to address that, I would be required to attempt to refuse cases because ethically you’re not permitted to accept more cases that you can handle.”
The attorney in the Walters murder trial had more than 200 cases, far beyond what Steiner and the American Bar Association said were ethical. Steiner resigned from the position earlier this year, and it appears that the threat of refusing cases never played out.
The problem also raises constitutional issues related to a defendant’s right to due process, speedy trials and an adequate defense.
To be clear, MacDonald’s order pins the root of this problem on the political decisions made by the Legislature and the governor’s administration. The order frequently refers to the budget and policy decisions, which appear to largely revolve around travel restrictions, as “choices.”
“These limitations reflect political and administrative choices of the legislative and executive branches that are beyond this court’s jurisdiction. But the record in this case should reflect that the current political and budgetary choices have consequences and those consequences are manifest in this case,” explains the order. “These consequences of these policy choices include the failure to uphold the victim’s and the defendant’s rights to a timely disposition. The people of Alaska, and the people of the Yukon-Kuskokwim region, should know that the delays in this case are the consequences of these choices.”
But instead of recommending the state address the budgetary problems that are making it difficult to fully staff Public Defender Agency offices with qualified attorneys, the clearest remedy proposed by MacDonald is essentially for the Public Defender Agency to try harder to manage the problem.
The order has plenty of criticism for the Public Defender’s Agency, noting that the court doesn’t doubt the near-impossible situation given to the system but says that “the current approach is just not working.” The Public Defender Agency also requested a new judge for the case, which was denied by MacDonald.
MacDonald’s advice in some ways mirrors the warnings Steiner gave last year: That the Public Defender Agency will need to prioritize its cases. It should focus on serious felony cases, he wrote, and “insulate attorneys with serious felonies from dealing with lesser cases.”
It’s an astonishing recommendation to see come from the court, essentially arguing that in times of budgetary difficulties the constitutional guarantee to a fair and speedy trial should be prioritized.
“Not that those cases don’t have merits, but there is a management choice to be made,” he wrote. “Very serious cases such as this deserve priority and the attorney’s handling these case deserve protection from overbearing caseloads. If cases are to be walked away from, better it be lesser cases. If a defendant is to be abandoned, better choices can be made than the defendant in this case.”
The under-funding of public defenders has become a common theme throughout the country. It’s snarled criminal justice systems while poor criminal defendants are frequently stuck behind bars for lengthy periods of time while they wait for overworked public defenders to get to their cases.
That’s particularly true for rural Alaska.
In Alaska Public Media’s report, Anna Bill, a former Mountain Village police officer familiar with the case, said the system seems to prioritize cases involving non-Natives over Alaska Natives:
Bill said that in her experience with the criminal justice system, cases involving white defendants and victims appear to be resolved more quickly than cases involving Alaska Natives. “All the white people are getting done first while the Natives get pushed to the back burner,” Bill wrote in a Facebook message when asked about the case. She said she was not a police officer in the village at the time of the killing.
Seriously, it’s worth reading it for yourself: